GREG RAY: A view from Pommy Hill

REMEMBER Pommy Hill?

I don't, but maybe if you grew up around Raymond Terrace the name might mean something to you.

Photographs on the Herald website last week of the former Courtaulds rayon factory at Tomago prompted comments from readers who remembered the factory in its heyday. (See the pictures here)

Reader Peter Cox phoned to tell me that many of the first workers at the factory were brought from the parent company in the UK and many of them lived at Pommy Hill.

"Pommy Hill was that area on the left, between the bridge and the school as you go into Raymond Terrace," Peter said.

He wants to hear from anybody who knows anything about the area, or about Courtaulds itself, because he is writing a history of the Pommy families, like his own, who once lived and worked there.

"I want to talk to as many as I can, and get their photos too, before it's too late to put it all together," he said.

Peter's family came out from Wales in 1952, when he was 13. He recalls having been sent to school in England, in order to avoid acquiring a Welsh accent.

"Both my parents spoke fluent Welsh, but it was hardly ever used in our home because they didn't want us to grow up with the accent," he said.

Peter's father worked at Courtaulds as a construction supervisor and his expertise related to the process and machinery, especially the chemical plant that formed the heart of the operation.

"Two chemical plant streams were involved," Peter said. "One handled sulphuric acid and the other handled acetone."

The factory made rayon for vehicle tyres, until the advent of steel-belted radials crippled its core business.

"There were 127 families came out, and each had an average of two or three children, so you can imagine it had a big impact on Raymond Terrace at the time," Peter said.

And as for the town itself, Peter said it seemed to him the perfect place to live and grow up.

"We rode horses, worked on the local farm milking cows and cutting chaff, we rode motorbikes and played in the river on rafts and made flying foxes that dropped us into the water. It was a wonderful place," he said.

It wasn't easy for everybody, however. Peter's brother died in a motorbike accident at the age of 18, and his opera singer mother never really found her feet in her new surroundings.

Peter was aware of widespread rumours that Courtaulds was an occasional bad polluter of the Hunter River, but when he worked there on vacation as a water sampler he never saw any problems.

"There used to be a wharf down near the hostel - I think it's a detention centre now - and we'd take a boat from there, dragging tins behind us to get water samples. There were spills sometimes, and floods caused trouble, but they tried hard to do the right thing," he said.

He said he did some work for the French company Pechiney, which built the Tomago Aluminium smelter on the old Courtaulds site.

"They erased almost every trace of the old factory," he said. "I think they might have left the gatehouse."

Peter remembers Newcastle as a thriving city in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I didn't bother even trying to drive my car to town in those days because it was so hard to get a park. I parked out at Mayfield and got a bus to town.

"Now, when I go into Newcastle, I find it almost unbelievable that this is the same place. It's sad, I think, to see how it's gone downhill in so many ways.

"Compared to how it was when I used to work in the city it seems so decrepit. Some of the same buildings are still there, but you can hardly recognise them from what they were."

If you want to help Peter write his history of Courtaulds and the Pommy Hill families, you can phone him on 4965 5649.

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